“Facebook? Well, I have an account but did not use it in the recent past”. This is how many of my colleagues responded to my question on how often they used Facebook. I would have given an exactly similar answer a couple of years ago. But not anymore. I now use this social platform quite often as an instructional tool. Facebook has changed the way I connect with my students. Join me as I briefly explore the use of Facebook as a long-time connecting bridge between me and my students. The use of Facebook in higher education could be endlessly fascinating.
The pedagogical approaches that we are so familiar with all these decades have undergone a rapid change during the last few years with students demanding more informal and flexible interaction to enhance their learning experiences . The use of social media is increasingly being studied to understand its potential to influence the way students and teachers interact, collaborate and share information and resources. When students with shared interests are brought together, mediated through their Professor, it can lead to either planned or spontaneous learning opportunities [2,3].
A social network, such as Facebook, is defined as “a set of people or groups of people with some pattern of contacts or interactions between them” . When Facebook was started in February 2004, it was for the sole use of Harvard University students as a social networking site until it was opened to the general public in 2006. Although there are other social networking sites such as MySpace, Friendster and diaspora*, Facebook is by far the most famous social site with more than a billion users per month and nearly 90 % of its users being students .
The primary reasons why people, particularly the youngsters, are attracted to Facebook are: (a) the need to belong and (b) the need for self-presentation . In a learning environment, both these are important factors to improve the bonding not only among the students but also with the teacher. I have often seen that in a heterogeneous class, if students know each other, the class environment is more positive leading to a better learning experience. There are two ways in which I could communicate with my students on Facebook – either accept them as “friends” or create a “group” and invite them to join as members. But youngsters, in general, would prefer to be a “friend” only to their peers and definitely not to their professors. Therefore, I decided to create a group for each course I teach.
The first time I started using Facebook was when I was teaching “EEL204 Analog Electronics” to the second year UG students with a class strength of about 140 students. When I announced in the class about the creation of “2013EEL204” Facebook group and requested them to join the group, the students were taken aback. Initially only my six teaching assistants and a quarter of the class signed up. The entire class did not sign up perhaps due to a general feeling that Facebook is meant only for wasting time and not suited for any serious academic activities. But as I started informing the class about what I have posted to the group, within a few days of the semester beginning, the entire class signed up.
Students may find multitude ways of using Facebook as a useful tool in their education which we as teachers would most likely not conceive. I had clear goals for creating a Facebook group for my course such as:
- Answering questions posed by the students
- Raising questions on topics that I covered in the class
- Posting links to sources to supplement student’s reading material
- Posting tutorials and their keys
- Providing a common forum for students to interact with each other
- Sending private messages to individual students if they required an advice and
- Inviting students to my home for a cup of tea at a short notice !
One of the reasons why Facebook works for me and my students is that we do not have to bother about creating another account with a new userid and password. We simply use our existing Facebook accounts to get into the Facebook group created for the course. If I had used some other Learning Management System (LMS) to create a forum or used a blog for my course, I would not have had the same success in motivating the students to use this facility because, unlike the Facebook, it can be very exasperating to log into multiple accounts. In Facebook, one can become a member of any number of groups with one single account. If a student is taking five courses in a semester, and if each instructor creates a Facebook group, joining in any of these groups will be seamless.
Professors tend to use traditional means of e-communication such as email to communicate with the students. However, students rarely check these emails. On the other hand, outside class hours, whenever I posted a message on my Facebook group, within minutes, a large part of the class had seen the message and started responding through likes and replies. Since Facebook is freely and easily available on mobile phones without any constraints, the use of Facebook for instructional purposes requires neither extra effort nor cost .
On Facebook, students can not only pose questions to the professor but also reach out to each other creating an open and less formal information flow compared to what we see in a controlled class room environment. Students often express their agreement with what you have posted by clicking on “Like”. This is a non-verbal and least effort expression. However, it provides clues to the teacher about how the students are reacting to your postings. Another way of making the students feel about the involvement of the professor in their learning process is to “like” a comment posted by the student on the course group or bring some of the Facebook group discussions into the class room. This can be very re-assuring to the students while interacting with the professor .
I often thought to be able to spend time with my students to know more about them. But Facebook provided me an alternate mechanism to know about them better at my own leisure. Every Facebook user has a profile which contains photos, videos and personal details. I often go through the profiles of my students to understand more about their interests and personality. I can access only a part or complete profile of the student depending on the security settings. Some students may look like recluses in the class room but outside they are really gregarious and I would not have known about it but for their Facebook profiles. Knowing more about the personality of the students does help in fostering a better bonding in the class room.
Social networks such as Facebook “blur the distinction between learning spaces, social spaces and leisure spaces” . This also means that the traditional hierarchical structure that exists in higher educational institutes may dissolve slowly. Reconfiguring this relationship between professors and students may lead to unexpected outcomes .
A Facebook group is not a lawless and crazy place where anyone can post anything. The users in a course group will always tend to behave responsibly since they also interact offline with their professor in a class room. With the professor as the moderator of the group, an organizational behaviour develops and any non-welcome behaviour on a Facebook group can easily be controlled. Since no group member of the class can post anonymously and the postings will become available to the group only after the administrator (either a teaching assistant or the professor) approves the posting, students will seldom post anything that can be called objectionable.
Contrary to the common belief that students use Facebook only for socializing online, there are in-depth studies indicating the use of Facebook for learning purposes . A significant body of research indicates that there is a correlation between student’s performance in a course and their active participation in the corresponding Facebook group [11-14]. Students in general are very positive about using Facebook as a collaborative tool. Take a look at the typical students’ feedback :
- “I like using Facebook ………it gives me the chance to interact with my classmates and the teachers outside of classroom. Since I already use Facebook on the daily basis so it’s nice for me to just browse on Facebook and then visit the group to see what others are up to.”
- “Facebook provides a good tool that integrates existing web technology such as Discussion board, chat, blog and YouTube. The tool provides more of the ‘community-based’ feeling where I feel comfortable sharing knowledge with the people I network with from my class.”
- “I like the ability to ask questions on the Facebook Wall where I can get answers from both my classmates and our instructors.”
Facebook is different for different people. While some people probably think it as a harmful obsession, for others, it could surely be an enduring and useful medium. Instead of feeling threatened by the widespread use of social media by the students, we should look at it without the prism of prejudice that surrounds this activity among the non-users. If students do not feel motivated enough to use Facebook as a learning tool, it is primarily because of the lack of interest from professors to adapt to the role of an active participant by creating their online presence to support the students’ learning activities .
Many professors are indifferent to use Facebook because either they are unfamiliar with its use or think that youngsters are simply wasting their time by being a Facebook user. Some professors, who do not share my enthusiasm to use Facebook, may even be angry at me for suggesting to consider the student as an interactive partner in the teaching strategy using Facebook as a medium. But hold on. Facebook is just a tool. The benefits that can be derived from its use solely depend on how we adopt it as a useful tool. We can no longer defend our conservative approach to adapt to new technological affordances by dubbing social networks such as Facebook as an avoidable distraction.
We often get to hear – “I am a busy researcher and teacher – how am I supposed to find time to do all these?” It is easy to take a step back with the justification that we are burdened with too many responsibilities to take advantage of the emerging new communication technologies to be in touch with the students. The former argument may be great to justify our inertia, but the latter is what our students need.
Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel once said “Only the paranoid survive”. Majority of students are paranoid about social media such as Facebook and will continue to use it in ways any one of us cannot even imagine. Therefore, to survive as an effective teacher, it will be foolish to keep away from such an important resource around which students’ lives are woven. Do you agree with me?
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